Lebanon News

Judge charges Diab, three ex-ministers of negligence in port blast case

Diab speaks at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Oct. 9, 2020. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Lebanon's prosecutor investigating the Beirut Port blast Thursday charged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for negligence that led to the deaths of more than 200 people, judicial sources said.

Judge Fadi Sawwan filed the charges against Diab, former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil as well as former public works ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Finianos after the probe "confirmed that they had received several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertilizer," one source said.

"They did not take the necessary measures to avoid the devastating explosion and its enormous damage," the source added.

Another source said Sawwan had already informed Diab of the charges and that he would question him at his office at the Grand Serail Monday as an accused. He is set to question the other three suspects in the first half of next week.

Diab, commenting on the charges, said in a statement that his "conscience is clear."

"He is confident that his hands are clean and that he has handled the Beirut Port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner," the statement said. "This surprising targeting goes beyond the person to the position per se, and Hassan Diab will not allow the premiership to be targeted by any party."

Diab's office later tweeted that Sawwan's move was unconstitutional, indicating he would not accept to be interrogated again after the prosecutor interviewed him in September.

Youssef Lahoud, legal representative to 1,500 families affected by the blast, described Sawwan's move as an "essential step toward revealing the complete truth."

In a letter to Parliament late last month, Sawwan asked lawmakers to investigate several outgoing and former ministers over the explosion.

The letter came after Sawwan's own investigations raised "certain suspicions about the responsibility of those ministers and their failure toward addressing the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port."

A judicial source said Thursday that Sawwan decided to press charges unilaterally after Parliament failed to respond to his request.

The Aug. 4 port blast damaged half the capital, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused losses worth billions of dollars. Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10, but it continues in caretaker capacity while efforts to form a new government stall.

The four are the most senior individuals to be charged so far in the probe, which is being conducted in secrecy. Anger has been building up over the slow investigation, lack of answers and the fact that no senior officials have been indicted.

About 30 other security officials and port and Customs officials have been detained in the probe.

Zeaitar was transport and public works minister in 2014, followed by Fenianos in 2016, who held the job until the beginning of 2020. Khalil was finance minister in 2014, 2016 and until 2020.

Both Khalil and Fenanios were sanctioned by the US in September this year, the first two officials to be subjected to such measures outside of Hezbollah.

Zeaiter told Reuters he would make a statement once he was officially informed of the charges. He headed the public works and transport ministry in 2014, shortly after the arrival of the Rhosus ship carrying a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate which detonated at the port.

Officials have said the cargo of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical, was stored unsafely for years at the port, which lies in heart of the city.

Finianos and Khalil, who is a senior aide to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Lawyers are divided in Lebanon about whether former or current ministers enjoy immunity in this probe.

Thursday's move showed Sawan sided with those saying immunity does not apply in this case, said Nizar Saghieh, head of The Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation.

"This is a positive thing, meaning it has opened the door to bringing the ministers to account," he said.

 

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